What is website accessibility?

14 December 2018

When we talk about accessibility, some people tend to think about physical accessibility like ramps and elevators in buildings. But what about digital/website accessibility – what is it and why is it important?

Website accessibility is essential in making the internet usable by everyone. In the same way buildings need to be accessible, websites also need to be accessible. But if you’re a non-technical JAWS user, or if you run a website, you might be wondering just what it means for a website to be accessible.

An accessible website is a level playing field

Whether you use a mouse and keyboard, a touch screen, or a screen reader, you will be able to access the same information on an accessible website. This makes accessible websites a level playing field. Inaccessible websites segregate the internet by removing access from people with disabilities.

For users who are blind or have low vision, websites are commonly accessed using a screen reader or magnifier. Programs like ZoomText magnify the screen for people with low vision, and can also implement specific colour schemes to make content clearer. Screen readers like JAWS read out the elements of a website as words. Accessible websites will also have text descriptions for any important images on the page, so the screen reader can narrate them.

At its core, an accessible website is one where any user, no matter their ability, can access the same information and the same content.

There are global accessibility guidelines

The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, commonly known as WCAG are a global set of recommendations for making the web more accessible. It follows four main principles:

  • Perceivable
  • Operable
  • Understandable
  • Robust

In Australia, the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 mandated that all government websites follow these guidelines. It also prohibits businesses from providing goods and services in a way that discriminates against people because of their disability. Since the landmark Maguire v SOCOG Sydney Olympics case there have been several cases where individuals have taken legal action against companies over inaccessible websites. Most recently, Coles settled a case and agreed to make changes to its website after a case was launched by Gisele Mesnage , a blind woman. In the United States there were more than 5000 lawsuits regarding website accessibility in the first half of 2018 alone.

The “cut curb effect”

Today, nearly every footpath in Australia has small ramps dotted along the kerb. These ramps mean people using wheelchairs can move from the road to the footpath without seeking assistance. These “cut curbs” also benefit people pushing prams, people skateboarding or cycling, and people with mobility issues. By putting into place accessibility options for people with disabilities, the whole of society benefits. This is called the “cut curb effect”.

Accessible websites don’t just benefit people with disabilities, they benefit everyone. Clear standards for colour contrast and font size mean text across the internet is more readable and simple logical menus mean it’s easier for everyone to navigate to the information they need.

Soon, an accessible website might have to mean more

In June 2018, the World Wide Web Consortium, the body responsible for WCAG, recommended an updated version of the guidelines: WCAG 2.1.

What makes WCAG 2.1 important is they provide further recommendations for users with a broader range of disabilities, including limited movement, photosensitivity, and some accommodations for people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities.

If adopted these recommendations could mean websites will have to be accessible in a whole range of new ways in coming years.

Want to make your website more accessible?

Digital Access at Vision Australia is recognised internationally as an industry leader in the provision of digital accessibility services, and we can work with you. You can read more about what we do here.